Thursday, January 10, 2008

My Dogs Are Great. Please Help Me!

(Contributed by Lori Whitwam)

On the upside, Brody and Darwin seem to have reached a truce, or at least a cease-fire, and I haven't had to check either of them for bloody puncture wounds in about three weeks. I'm still not sure if this is their doing, or if I'm just getting better at managing it. Either way, no Tasmanian-Devil-style go-rounds and lack of impending bodily harm equals "good."

Brody used to be my "problem barker." He's a Great Pyrenees, which is a livestock guardian breed, and in fact his parents are working livestock guardians on an Arabian horse farm in Illinois. His job, as he sees it, is to patrol the yard for extended periods of time, and bark at any person, dog, squirrel, cat, leaf, cloud, shadow, or invisible ninja he sees (or imagines). The good part, inasmuch as there is one, is that there are long periods of patrol and observation in between barking jags. He is selectively deaf when outside, and at this moment has been outside since 6:30 AM (and it is now 10:53 AM) and is currently barking in the general direction of a tree which may or may not contain a squirrel.

Amazingly, he is no longer the reigning Bark King of the immediate neighborhood. That honor now belongs to Darwin, the three year old rescued golden who joined our family on November 21. I've had six goldens, and none of them have been dedicated barkers. Sure, they'd bark once in a while (actually, Seko's bark was more like a whinny, which was comical coming from such a regal senior male golden), but none of them seemed to make a hobby of it.

I should have had a clue when, while visiting Darwin at his foster home, he barked for thirty solid minutes at the German Shepherd who was there with Foster Mom's brother. But hey, he was excited and really wanted to play. He did that when he came to our family, too, barking at Brody to get him to play... which was a big part of Brody's animosity toward him in the beginning. Apparently Darwin the Golden doesn't know how to bark in "Pyrish." He may have inadvertently barked something offensive, but I'm not sure because Ozark, who is a Pyr/Lab mix and presumably fluent in Pyrish and probably at least conversant in Goldenese, refuses to translate.

Outside, when Brody and Ozark were wrestling, Darwin would bounce and bark in an effort to get into the game. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. Which, I think, is when the problem began. We have a large yard, two acres in a subdivision that used to be in the middle of a corn field but is now bordering on Strip Mall Central. We are two houses off a two-lane county road with moderate traffic. The chain link fence between our yard and the neighbor between us and the road is now Darwin's personal racetrack. He has discovered the cars that pass by every couple of seconds, and has decided that if Brody and Ozark are too busy to play, the cars are an acceptable alternative. He runs the fence, barking maniacally at his new "friends," (or maybe they're enemies... he's not been forthcoming on the subject) and chases them away. But wait! There's another one! "BARKBARKBARKBARKBARK!!!!!!!!!! Ha! Chicken! Run away! Next!!! Coming from the other direction, huh? Thought you could sneak up on me? BARKBARKBARKBARKBARKBARK!" He's run the fence so much that the snow there is now compacted into a narrow, Darwin-width glacier, and in the spring I'm sure it will turn into a muddy trench.

I'm nearly immune to barking. At least big-dog barking. Little yappy-dog barking still gets on my nerves, but I don't have any little dogs, so that's not a big problem in my world. My stress and irritation come because I have always gone out of my way not to impose my dogs on others in the immediate vicinity who may not be as devoted to dogs as I am. So when he starts barking, my tension level begins to rise, worrying that someone in the house next door might be sleeping, nursing a hangover headache, or trying to do some other domestic task that would best be accomplished with some QUIET.

One option would be to shut the gate in the fence that surrounds our back door, deck, patio and pool, thus denying him (and out of necessity the other dogs) access to the rest of the big back yard. That puts another tall wooden privacy fence between him and his view of the road. The downside to this is that he would soon begin to make frequent trips (and potty stops) on the top of the snow-and-ice-covered in-ground pool cover. This is not a big issue right now, but much more problematic as it begins to thaw. Hauling a soaking, freezing dog out after he falls through slushy ice is Not Fun. And yes, I do know this first-hand. Plus, when spring arrives, much poop would have to be scooped and/or pumped off the pool cover turned canine septic tank. Also Not Fun. Even if it's not on the actual pool cover, a winter's worth of large dog droppings in the mulchy area around the pool is also undesirable (or so says my husband, who is the designated poop-scooper, mainly because it bothers him way more than it does me).

Let me be clear about two things. I will not, under any circumstances either de-bark my dog, or use a shock collar. I'd move us all to a remote Canadian outpost first.

Which still leaves me searching for a solution. Trekking down the Killer Steps of Death (currently covered in three inches of ice) in my floppy boots, dog-hair-covered sweat suit, and parka is something I don't tend to do a lot of in the depths of a Minnesota winter. This makes in-person corrections, rewards or distractions difficult.

So far, I'm considering duct tape, a moat (wait, he's a golden, he'd like that... plus it would be frozen, and therefore not a moat but a slippery road running parallel to the highway, so maybe
I should just get him ice skates), super glue, a paintball gun (that was my husband Tom's idea), a helper monkey (also Tom's idea, but he really just wants a monkey), or perhaps a scud missile. We talked about those ultrasonic things you mount on the fence, that make an "unpleasant to dogs" sound when something loud happens near them, but he'd never hear the "unpleasant to dogs" sound over his own bark. A citronella collar sounds like a good possibility. At least he'd smell all herbally. The helper monkey would probably enjoy that. Wonder what frozen citronella is like around a dog's neck/chin, though.

I've always been a dog-person, managing multi-dog packs successfully. Given time, I usually work out any behavior issues we encounter, but this one has me stumped at the moment. Every time I yell at Darwin, Ozark (all 110 pounds of him) gets nervous and flings himself under the end table, where he really does not fit, considering all the junk I have stuffed under there. 14-year-old Sprocket is kind of deaf, making him the luckiest one here, as he is largely immune to both the barking and the yelling.

If any of you have suggestions, I'd love to hear them! Provided I haven't been barked deaf. So you'd better hurry. In the meantime, I will be learning to read lips so I can communicate with the Realtor who will sell me my remote Canadian outpost.

Monday, January 7, 2008

I Cry At Dog Shows

(Contributed by Lori Whitwam)

I admit it. I cry at dog shows.

Part of this is me just being sappy. I so totally and deeply adore dogs, and seeing so many wonderful, cheerful, well cared-for dogs makes me happy right to the center of my being.

While I might be sentimental when it comes to dogs, I’m not completely na├»ve. I know that there are some dogs at these events that are of more financial than emotional concern to their owners. I know some of these dogs travel extensively with their professional handlers and may seldom see their actual “owners.” (Not that the handlers don’t love and take great care of these dogs… they do, or they wouldn’t be making a successful living as a handler) These are, thankfully, the exceptions. In general, there are caring owners present handling, or at least cheering on, their much-loved canine companions.

We don’t advocate prolific breeding of purebred dogs, but the majority of the owners at big shows like the Land O’Lakes Kennel Club Dog Show that we attended over the weekend are at least trying to do things responsibly. This means doing something with their dogs to make sure they are good, healthy representatives of their breed, including comparing them to other dogs, doing appropriate health testing, and following a carefully planned (and not too frequent) breeding program. They are careful where they place their “pet quality” dogs, and follow up often with the families who have their dogs. The people who regularly show their dogs pay close attention to diet, exercise, grooming and socialization. These dogs work with their people every single day, which is the most important thing to the dogs. Many “show” dogs are anything but spoiled, pampered, foo-foo pseudo-dogs. They often have obedience, agility, field, tracking or other work-related accomplishments.

My favorite part of these large shows, however, is the obedience competition. Back in 1995-1996, I competed in AKC Obedience with my first golden retriever, Ripley. From the time he was four months old, we trained every single day (except when he had to take a break at six months old for hip surgery) and never missed our weekly training class. Ripley and I had an incredible unspoken bond. I was a rookie handler, he was an untitled dog, and while we never took high score, we did qualify every time we competed, and earned his Companion Dog title. He would have gone on for more advanced titles… if I’d asked him to. But I knew my boy, and he was doing it because it was important to me; he didn’t really enjoy it that much, so we “retired.” You can tell, watching the more advanced Open and Utility level obedience that those dogs love what they’re doing, and the working relationship between dog and handler is amazing.

I watched a woman and her red golden retriever in Novice A, which is the rookie/rookie level that I was in with my Ripley. I sat there with tears in my eyes the whole time they were in the ring. The handler was so nervous, and I could completely relate! Before they entered the ring, he sat by her side and she was fondling his ears in exactly the same way I used to with Ripley. The dog was happy, and trying hard, but they were both too inexperienced to give a perfect performance. He lagged when he should be heeling, his “sit” was slow and crooked, and he often got distracted. Still, the joy they got from working this way together was obvious, and I was reminded of the fun I had with Ripley. Now I am thinking I need to get back into obedience with one of my dogs. Three year old Darwin? He’s a golden, and bright, and would likely take to it very well. 2 ½ year old Brody is a smart boy, too, but he’s a Great Pyrenees, and might have other things he’d rather do! 8 year old Ozark is a mixed breed, but I bet he’d still enjoy going to classes and training with me at home, even if he can’t go to competitions.

So that’s something for me to think about as spring (hopefully) approaches. My dogs are with me constantly when I’m at home, all four of them following me from room to room and setting up camp wherever I am, but actually doing something with them again would only enhance our bond.

The other part about dog shows is… shopping! I always buy way, way too much stuff that I simply can’t live without! This weekend I bought a denim jacket (with golden retrievers embroidered on it), a dog tapestry purse, a silver paw print necklace, and a tiara. Don’t ask about the tiara!